Do you believe in the old adage that ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’? Lots of people do, and it can put you off the desire to further your education.
Although 19th century psychologist William James claimed that by thirty ‘the character has set like plaster’, more recent research is less rigid. It is possible to forge new neural pathways and keep the brain agile, although it takes effort – through focus, practice and maintaining your physical health.
There are ways you can make your brain more elastic and organise your life around study. Here are some strategies to employ.
Focus your attention
Try to establish a routine for your study hours. If you have a family, this might seem impossible, but they can become a great support. Let them in on your planning so they know when to leave you alone for Study Time. Partners and kids might take on more of the household maintenance while you’re studying – which is good for your focus and incidentally excellent for teaching your kids some independence too.
It helps to create a study plan so you know what’s coming and when: use a wall calendar, a digital tool, keep checklists, set reminders. Do important stuff early and don’t get surprised by deadlines.
Focusing on tasks that are new to you forges new neural pathways, connected new neurons with existing ones. If you feel both physically and mentally exhausted afterwards, you are doing it right! It can be a challenge, but for the over 30s, it’s keeping your brain stimulated and responsive.
Practise, practise, practise – but not alone
Reviewing your work gives your brain more of a chance to remember important information. You can do this alone, or you can engage a family member or friend to help with spot quizzes. You can even simply sit a friend down and try to explain to them what you’ve learned, as a way of reinforcing the presence of this material in your neural pathways.
Getting your friends and family involved in this way increases the strength of your support network while also reinforcing your new knowledge.
Practising the new things you’ve learned is how those newly forged neural pathways become fixed in your 30+-year-old brain. It can take up to five months to make a new ‘brain map’. Keep up with the practise and your brain map will keep growing.
Maintain your health
If you get stuck on an essay or reading, take a break and walk around the block. You may feel you can’t spare the time, but taking regular breaks are known to be good for productivity. A ten minute walk can get the blood flowing and let the back oxygen in to free up your thoughts.
Don’t exhaust yourself with too many commitments. Learn to say no to things that really can wait. If possible, delegate tasks to other members of your household.
It can be hard to eat well when you’re super busy with working and studying at the same time. Ask family members to help with meals. If that’s not possible, plan a weekly menu and cook in bulk to have home-made meals that are easy to reheat.
Given that your brain is less elastic after 30, you want to optimise your capacity to keep those neural pathways forming and sticking around. Brains are nutrient-greedy, so a healthy, properly hydrated body means healthy brain tissue that’s better equipped to continue learning and growing.
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